You’re mindlessly scrolling on your phone after a long day at work, sifting through miles of negative posts.
In what seems like minutes, hours have gone by.
Doomscrolling has become a popular word over the past year to describe the habit of mindlessly scrolling through negative news. People lose their perception of time while scrolling on their phones, said Jeffrey Hall, professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
Hall has spent over 10 years studying technology use in conjunction with relationships and is the director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at The University of Kansas. The lab focuses on how people incorporate digital technology into their everyday communication.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: How do people get sucked into doomscrolling?
Jeffrey Hall: There are actually three parts to this that are worth paying attention to. One has to do with the way that social media companies design their product and the user experience. Another has to do with the user interface with that algorithm and the way it’s designed. And third has to do with the way that we are attentive to negative information.
Social media companies’ express goal is to gather more information about our viewing habits to capture our attention for longer periods of time. This is so they can monetize that behavior with the purpose of selling it to advertisers.
The algorithms are designed to maximize the amount of time people are paying attention to the app, and they evolve based on user engagement. What you click on, what your eyeballs spend more time on, what you reinforce in your scrolling, tells the algorithm what you want to see more of. It becomes a funnel where you see information you’re not interacting with less and less.
The third part has to do with your own attention processes. People tend to have what’s called negativity bias when it comes to information. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s related to the idea that we needed to be more alert to threats. If things are not particularly surprising, we can reside in a very low energy state, but as soon as we see something that’s potentially threatening or worrisome, it piques our attention. The algorithms are picking up on what we engage in, and our attentive processes tend to focus on the more negative information.
CNN: What are some ways people can prevent doomscrolling?
Hall: A researcher a long time ago said something to me that I thought was really smart. She said, “I’m constantly training my algorithm.” When I see stuff I want to see, I click and like it, and when I see stuff I don’t like, I don’t click on it. You can push back on what you want to see by directing the algorithm to things you’d prefer to see.
You can also take active steps to recognize if there are people who are a part of your social network that seem to be fueling your sense of doom and gloom. You may want to consider unsubscribing or muting them. People are very loath to actually unfriend or stop following a person altogether. However, there are ways to not get that content. Oftentimes we’re very upset about content we see, but we don’t do anything to change what we see.
The third thing you can do is what I like to think of as a more extractive than immersive way of using social media. An extractive way of using social media means you go in, you observe the content that’s there, then you log out and let it go. Immersive social media use means it’s always on and always available.
If you have it on your mobile device, that’s typically a way to invite immersiveness because it’s always there and will give you notifications constantly. An extractive way of doing that is silencing notifications and logging out of your accounts when you’re not using it.
CNN: How can people have a more positive relationship with social media?
Hall: Researchers have become very alert to the realities that the more one-on-one, relationship-building interactions someone has, the stronger their use of social media is. What I mean by that is behaviors that tend to personally and responsibly engage with people you care about tend to be the behaviors on social media that lead to the highest in-the-moment sense of well-being.
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You can really direct your social media use away from things which tend to be divorced of personal content and toward relationship-building activities.
Research suggests it’s not just what you put out there; it’s how other people respond that’s valuable to you. Let’s say I’m posting something about how I’m personally going through a hard time. All of the people who sustain me in my relationships can do so through positive affirmations and support, ways of showing sympathy in response to what I post. That’s more work, but it’s important work. That’s work we can do to show people that we care about them.